- Dr. Sarika Kulkarni
Chief Executive; Raah Foundation
We at Raah Foundation believe that Women empowerment is a misnomer – woman is extremely empowered and strong irrespective of where she is from?– fighting all odds since birth, going against the tide through life yet becoming the backbone of her family and preserving the cultural fabric of the society. All we hence do is make her aware of her inner hidden skills and talents, hone them through niche capacity building, provide her with opportunities to use them economically, socially and politically and finally provide her with a position of respect and dignity in different committees we form for sustainable development.
When we started working in the tribal indigenous areas our hearts sank at seeing the women there. Beautiful, extremely charming, passionate, ever smiling while going through some serious hardships in life. Severe water scarcity kept her constantly walking with heavy pots of water on head creating long term repercussions on her health. She was forced to ignore her children as water was the basic elixir of life and everything else could wait. Bereft of any local opportunities or skills, her husband was forced to migrate to work as an unskilled labour to urban markets leaving her alone to handle multiple responsibilities. We clearly had to do something. We soon started working in these areas with a vengeance with a vision of creating a better, healthier and happier world for the indigenous communities. The first task we undertook was understanding the root cause by delayering the intertwined social problems. The root cause clearly that emerged was severe water scarcity. Ironically in spite of being the highest rainfall areas of Maharashtra. We had to fix water problem on an absolute priority.
We launched program Malhar that has the objective of creating water secure & positive villages. We work on augmenting the water availability by creating rain water harvesting structures which provide year round water. While regulating the demand through water usage frameworks. We were stunned when through a research we found that this has the potential to free over 1200 hours annually for the women. Now with water (drinking and for hygiene) was available in her own village she was saving time to walk for hours for water.
The biggest uptake of this was it gave her more control on her own life. When we asked them what she wants to do with this time ? Half of them said they just want to rest as they are tired walking for hours with heavy pots of water on head. Some decided to use the time to earn an additional income while some others chose to spend better quality time with their children. Sarlatai from Umbervangan even joked saying that her body was so used this chore that for the first few months she might just have to go and spend the day near the water source as since the time she remembers – she was only done that in life.
Our water program is bottom up and involves the community for water demand management. We saw this as a great opportunity to involve women at the community level as water guardians. We conceptualised and implemented a gender neutral water management committee. Women initially were hesitant but they soon opened and realised that they need to exercise their power – over water, and over how the village uses water and importantly creating frameworks to ensure water sustainability for their children.
Once they realised that they have a voice and can talk and people listen, once they realised that they can decide and people follow, they felt super empowered and started participating in other social, political and economic decision making at community, village and block levels. Ranjana tai from Balkapra started her public foray with our Malhar or water management committee and is now Upsarpanch of her village. When I talk to her I feel so elated that our ecofeminism approach has not only helped bring sustainability but importantly brought women to the fore and now they are taking development in their own hands.
In my first meeting with Ranjana, she was a shy young woman with 4 children hiding behind her and she was refusing to look into my eyes while talking to me. When I went to her village after couple of months I noticed a difference – she was still shy but had the courage of looking into my eyes while communicating. The moment I saw those beautiful big black eyes, I felt humbled. She had found her self-worth and had improved self- esteem.
Once we solved the water problem and village had abundant water – women had time and men who were mostly small and marginal farmers too could look at year round agriculture opportunities instead of migrating.
We launched Program Urja to support women start micro enterprises. Women as you would all know are of different types – some are born leaders while others are followers, some like to work independently while some others like to work in the comfort of a group. We decided to address all of these categories of women by creating sub programs for individual women as well as group businesses. We scan the village for gaps and create sustainable opportunities from starting a grocery shop to a blacksmith business, a flour mill to a tailoring shop. We then identify a woman who wants to use this opportunity to uplift her life.
Our art and product based group businesses like quilting, grass weaving, textile and plastic waste upcycling has and would involve over 1000 women going forward. Grass weaving is done by sitting in one place and this provided us with an opportunity to physically differently abled girls. Manisha Bhoye, Vanita Malkari and Champa Burange are part of our first cohort who are earning a decent income and this is helping them accept life as it is with more elan.
We curate and create opportunities and She has the freedom to choose what she wants. We talk to her and encourage her to listen to her mind and heart, understand her intrinsic skills and talents and match them with the opportunity. I was once talking to Chanda tai and she said this was the first time someone was asking me what I wanted.
This allows her to earn a decent income from the comfort of her home while taking care of her household chores. This income also improves her economic independence and gives her a right to take decisions in the matters of the house helping her manoeuvre her way through the myriad of challenges. Our niche training further enhances her courage and she confidently changes the course of her life. Once I drilled Kashi tai about how she uses her income, she told me – she divides it into two parts – one for her house/ children etc. and one for her. She said she was saving it for herself – she didn’t know what it meant or how would spend that money on herself – but the fact that she owned money brought shine and a beautiful smile on her face I still remember and feel good about.
A very interesting fact about our program with women is that about 70% of them are completely illiterate. They have never been to school or have held a pen or pencil in their hands. Facilitating entrepreneurship among such women is a challenge in itself and when we decided earlier this year that we would help them scale up the businesses and go to the next level we were faced with a dead end. How do you support a woman who cannot read or write scale up? While deliberating internally we found our solace in the digital technology. We launched an ambitious program of equipping all of our women entrepreneurs with smart phones and help them track their businesses through an app.
We feel encouraged when Bagu bai a gutsy woman of 60 years from a small village in Khodala and never been to school is today using a smart phone and tells us confidently the difference between sales and profit. I still remember the first day Bagubai came to us – after losing her only son to snake bite her husband had suffered a paralytic stroke. She moved to live with her daughter who had her own financial struggles. Bagubai was determined to not depend on her daughter and she approached us to enroll in the project Urja. We believe in change without charity and expect our beneficiaries to contribute in some way. She wanted to start a grocery shop. Usually our model is that we provide a two months’ supply and the woman creates a hole in the wall of her hut and spends on vending infrastructure. We provide all the training and handholding support. She had nothing – the house belonged to her daughter and she could not tamper with it. She offered to start the business on a charpoy outside her house. Seeing her determination and passion we decided to make an exception. She became our Urja
– within six months she came to us with a box and showed us the money she had earned and requested us to help her with a shade and more SKUs. We by that time had become her fan and complied. Within next couple of months she was back with another request
– now she wanted to buy a refrigerator. This time Her husband recently passed away and she very proudly told me when I met her last time that she had no regrets as she could give him a good treatment. She is my role model and a go to person when I am depressed and when I need to be inspired. I have never met a more self-motivated person in my life. But for the world she is an illiterate rural woman, a non-entity. Bagubai is today contributing to rural economy as an entrepreneur, has become a job creator and has become an important member of the community.
The geography we work in is very challenging as it is northern part of western ghats and is a mountainous region with one village on top of the hill while other in deep valley. The banks are located in taluka head quarter with most of villagers having to walk for a few hours to reach any bank. They often had to sacrifice a days work and income to use the bank keeping most of them away from organised financial institutions. We found enormous opportunity in this gap. We created an army of 70 women E Dost – they are banking correspondence plus plus and support 1000 households with basic banking transactions like checking balance, withdrawal, deposits, transfers etc through a banking tool and app. They charge a small commission for this and earn a decent income. This has brought the banks to the women and farmers and other community members and improved the financial inclusion while providing a respectful opportunity to 70 women who also earn a decent income. Shakuntala our star E Dost from Vikramgad says that she has now employed her husband also as her assistant as her business has grown and she was unable to cope up alone. Vimal another E Dost has now become a sarpanch of the village contributing effectively to governance of the village.
Our Program Krishi supports year round income for farmers through niche climate smart farming interventions helping men stay back in their own villages and lead a life of dignity without having to migrate. With men staying back, women were happier as they would together take care of the house and children and live happily as a family. This further helps preserve the unique cultural heritage of the indigenous communities. Earlier last year 12 women from Ramkhind approached us saying that they were passionate farmers and were helping their husbands on farms but now wanted to indulge in independent farming. We were on the verge of implementing our group farming project and decided to give opportunity to women from Ramkhind. Before we knew what was happening, the news spread and four other groups of women from Akhar, Adoshi, Shiroshi and one more Ramkhind came forward with the same request. We then helped them start a collective farming on a 2 acre rented land. We provided support in terms of fencing, drip irrigation, seeds, saplings, spray pumps, training and hand holding etc. and they are putting in all the hard work while contributing a small amount to the budget. Determined to prove themselves, they take turns and divide the income based on the no of hours spent by each woman. When I look at them I feel extremely happy and feel confident that India will be a super power in years to come as our other half a billion population was rising and contributing effectively to economic growth and development.
Earlier this year we launched Program Samarth – a skill training initiative for under privileged youths from Tier 2 and 3 cities. This is enabling us to work with young aspirational girls who want to make a career in service sector.
Our communities are the original inhabitants and live in and worship nature. Yet unfortunately have become the innocent victims of climate change. We launched our climate action program to convert barren land into a lush green oasis that also act as climate sinks. After piloting on a small 10 acre plot we have already revived over 175 acres of land and are now working on an ambitious program of rejuvenation of river Godavari that entails working on 15,000 acres over five years and planting 4.5 million saplings. Once again our village level Van Rakshak Samitis are involving women in all critical decisions and are making them responsible for their forests and their trees. Incidentally we have two women at the helm of this program – Sarayu as the head of climate change leads from the front and Arti Arde and Godavari Devkate has taken the charge at the ground level.
To summarise We work with women across the following five dimensions:
- Supporting her to have power to control her own lives.
- Giving her multiple options and the right of choice.
- Providing access to opportunities and resources and building her ability to use them.
- Involving her in social and critical community level decisions.
- Reminding her and thus improving her sense of self-worth and self-esteem.
It is so heartening that this month as we celebrate the 12th birthday of Raah Foundation, we feel blessed that our efforts have provided the power to women from some of the most marginalised communities to feel empowered and to feel awesome about being a woman.
We work in Jawhar, Mokhada and Vikramgad in Palghar District, Nashik District and Pen taluka in Raigad district. Our skill training program has begun in Mumbai and soon starting in Pune district in the manufacturing hub of Talegaon. We have some amazing partners like HDFC Bank, DBS Bank, HSBC, APPI, Angel One, IIFL Group, Ventura Broking, etc.
We have reached over 50,000 women and around 1,00,000 overall beneficiaries through multiple programs but for us this is just the beginning for us and we have a long way to go.
Hum Raah par chal pade hai – jiski manzil bahut door hai
Chale the akele hi magar log judte gaye aur karvaa badhta gaya…
If you want to know about our work and contribute do get in touch with us.